Your Breasts Are Private, Little Girl
I first learned that my chest was special in kindergarten. During an unusual lesson on inappropriate touches that our principal had to sit in on, our teacher asked for a volunteer to point to all the private parts on a doll. I raised my hand and was able to point to the front and back of the doll’s underwear, careful not to actually touch it. The teacher motioned for me to keep going. Confused, I scanned the doll for clues and finally guessed the doll’s unnaturally red lips must also be off-limits. “Actually,” the teacher gently corrected me, “I meant this area,” and she pointed to the doll’s flat, nippleless chest.
When a little boy was asked to do the same thing on the boy doll, the front and back of the underwear was sufficient. Only girls had an additional private place.
Your Breasts Are Sinful, Little Girl
A bit over a year later, I was pulled from my public elementary school and, at our church’s behest, placed in a private Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) school. I would spend the rest of my school career learning a literalist view of the Bible, how to properly beat children, that women should be in submission to men, that apartheid was a good thing, and that children were horribly, inherently sinful.
Somehow all of that was seen as less harmful to us than learning about evolution.
In this ACE school the lessons drove home the idea that our bodies were sinful, and touching them was worse. While public school had called certain body parts “private,” Christian school had changed the definition of “private” to include the idea of being dirty and wrong. They also expanded what constituted private parts to include a lot more of a little girl’s body, including her legs above the knee.
Your Whole Body Is Sinful, Little Girl
As a little kid, I internalized the message that I was bad for having bad body parts. As I matured, I would articulate this as my physical self (“the flesh”) being wretched due to sin. In the gnostic-sounding verses of Romans 8, I learned the following about my sexuality: “To be carnally minded is death… the body is dead because of sin… if you live according to the flesh you will die… but if you put to death the deeds of the body you will live… and we groan while eagerly waiting the redemption of our bodies.” In other words, our bodies are bad, and then (yay!) we die and are free of them.
Romans 8 taught me to reject the flesh. To reject my sinful flesh meant to abhor it to some degree, and I loathed nothing worse than my chest area.
Women’s Bodies Are Especially Sinful
Besides being sinful, my religious upbringing included a message about breasts that can be summed up like this:
Dear guys, “Let her breasts satisfy you at all times.” Proverbs 5:19
Dear gals, “Your body [is] not your own.” 1 Corinthians 6:19
Of course men’s bodies were also supposed to belong to God, but that was rarely emphasized. Women’s bodies were sinful to the point that Jesus had to warn men not to look at them. Jesus had no such warnings about a man’s body causing immorality in others. And in Proverbs 7, it was women who would drag men down into hell with their tempting selves, not the other way around.
“I find more bitter than death
the woman who is a snare,
whose heart is a trap
and whose hands are chains.
The man who pleases God will escape her,
but the sinner she will ensnare.
I found one upright man among a thousand,
but not one upright woman among them all.”
Ecclesiastes 7:26,28 (emphasis mine)
When I was prepubescent, my chest had no mounds under the nipples to let me know where, exactly, the sinful part of my chest ended and the normal part began. So I didn’t know how much of the front of my body was bad to touch or look at. Let me be clear, not for other people to touch or look at, but for me to touch and look at. Christianity teaches that my body was a temple of the Holy Ghost, and did not belong to me. This led me to feel guilt for rolling onto my front while sleeping, for scrubbing while taking a bath, or when my kitty walked across my chest on his way across the bed.
When I was told that God knew and saw everything and cared deeply about my physical purity, it made me feel intensely violated. I was the girl who had to cover up the knots in the wooden sink counter before I could use the bathroom because they looked like eyes. And God was a voyeur in a worse way than wood knots; he could see through clothes! This was something my earthly father was never allowed to do, even though his sperm literally created me, so how was it okay for my heavenly father to do?
“Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your shame shall be seen.” Isaiah 47:3-4
“Adonai (the Lord) will expose their private parts.” Isaiah 3:16-17
“It is because of your many sins that your skirts are pulled up and you have been violated… I myself [says the Lord] will lift your skirts above your face, and your privates will be exposed.” Jeremiah 13:22,26
At school I would sit for hours in my cubicle facing the wall (ACE promotes this kind of deprivation while completing work books) and squirm as my clothes touched my skin. If a hand or eye on my chest could make me impure, I imaged the cloth of my shirt could do the same. I tried to stuff tissues along my clavicle so that the fabric tented away from my bosom. It didn’t take long for a supervisor (ACE doesn’t have teachers) to notice me stuffing my shirt and misunderstand my intentions. I was mortified.
It seemed my arms were always accidentally brushing against the front of my body. When I played the piano, my elbows set off proximity detectors in my chest like a sixth sense. And I became overly nervous about facing anyone. I assumed God allowed the sinful part of my body to be in such a prominent place in front of me in order to constantly remind me how wretched I was. My pastor told me that being aware of our sinful nature helped us to be humble. I was very humble.
Puberty As Punishment For Sin
Then it happened. Stabbing pains shot through my chest followed by a numb ache that made hugging someone uncomfortable and lying face-down impossible. My mother told me these were growing pains while I developed breasts, and my doctor confirmed this, but I knew better. I had been in Christian school studying Deuteronomic cause and effect long enough by now to know I was being punished for my sin.
In many ways it was a relief to be punished, as I had always felt this web of nameless guilt. One time I had cupped my growing breasts in front of a mirror out of curiosity. That had definitely been a sin. Another time I had tried on my grandmother’s gigantic bra that had been hanging on the back of her door while I used her bathroom. That was probably a sin, too. My budding chest made me feel womanly and shameful all at once. I definitely understood the need for punishment when it came, and I honestly thought that if I had been faithfully flagellating myself, I might have avoided the “growing pains” entirely.
After puberty, I finally possessed a chest with some definition, enough that I could conveniently bind my small bust into a K-mart training bra. It felt as though that piece of cotton confined the sinful part of my body to one imprisoned area, giving me a sense of freedom to swing my arms without worry. Then during one fateful Wednesday chapel session, our pastor taught us Jesus’ command to cut off offending body parts. Although he didn’t encourage the actual disfigurement, he did emphasize the importance of avoiding sin, and did seem to admire those willing to go that far for God. This cemented the connection in my mind between the physical body and its damnation. I began to see my bra as a way to collect these offensive body parts into a sling that would be convenient for slicing them off. It made my stomach sink and my skin pimple up to think about it.
Marriage and Motherhood
When my chest was finally allowed to be touched, it was my wedding night and the experience was almost painful. Having a smaller chest meant the nerve clusters were closer together (as opposed to having a larger chest where those same clusters might be spread out over more surface area), and the sensation overload made me feel horribly debased. For a long time I hated being touched there.
Breastfeeding was extremely hard for me. I had been taught that my breasts were for my husband, yet a precious life depended on them to live. Because of the hangups I’d been given, the most natural thing in the world felt wrong.
I entered my thirties before realizing I did not believe in the Christian worldview anymore. This realization, however, did not mean I instantly shed the negative views about my body. I still carried the baggage of thinking that parts of me were inherently dirty, even though I knew that wasn’t logically true. I had grown so accustomed to an unhealthy relationship with my own breasts that I didn’t question it. But all that changed one day, randomly enough, while watching a video (NSFW) of a woman getting nipple tattoos after a double mastectomy.
When Caitlin got her new nipples tattooed onto her reconstructed chest, she was ecstatic. She cried about how much this meant to her and joyfully celebrated what the artist had given back to her. I couldn’t help parroting her emotions as I watched the video. I went into the bathroom, shut the door, and took off my shirt to look in the mirror–a defiant act, since the guilt for doing so still lingered in my thinking. The breasts that Caitlin had fought impossibly hard battles to get, were on my own body already, and they were woefully underappreciated. My chest had caused me nothing but nonsensical grief and anguish, but here it was, a bit stretched after a pregnancy, but still glorious.
I find no discernible evidence of a deity having a hand in creating my body, and zero credibility to the idea that he gets to control my body because he paid for it. (I’m not a prostitute to God, thank you very much.) Therefore, if my body is a temple, the only one who fills it is me. In this way, atheism gave me my body back and truly freed me from condemnation.
Now if my child accidentally pats my chest, or if I forget to wear a bra when loading kids on the school bus, or even if a bit of cleavage is showing, it’s fine. I certainly don’t fret over touching my own body, and I revel in the touches of my spouse. It took a while, but eventually I shed my shame. Now that those dirty feelings are gone, I am highly motivated to put that physical sensitivity to good use.
And I no longer have to worry about a caveman of a deity obsessed with my curves.
What attitudes toward your body did you learn as a child? Leave a comment and join the conversation!